EDMONTON — It was pre-season game No. 1 and there are a few things we’ve learned over the years about pre-season openers.
First off, we’re only watching one team. If it's Winnipeg Jets takes you’re looking for, read our fine Jets scribe, Ken Wiebe.
The next thing? The ice is full of young players destined for junior and the American Hockey League. If you are a bonafide NHL player playing in this game, you should look like one.
Stuart Skinner, Warren Foegele, Ryan McLeod, Brett Kulak, Evan Bouchard, Jason Demers — all of those players looked like how they're supposed to look in a 4-0 win over the Jets Sunday night. Demers settled in nicely after a long time between games, and veteran Ryan Murray was also steady.
They weren’t the only bright lights, certainly. But in a game where Jake Virtanen needed to show he’s one of the better players, here on a PTO and trying to impress, he was barely OK.
Here are a few highlights, from a game we’ll have forgotten by Friday, let alone come April and May.
I really like defenceman Markus Niemeläinen, who played 15:25 and was credited with six hits and a goal.
In a time where hard, physical players are fewer and farther between, this is a guy who should have some currency. Remember how effective the Flames' third pairing was last year with Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbransson? Remember how everyone had their heads on a swivel when Niklas Kronwall or Bryan Marchment played?
Well, the Oilers don’t have a single player who hits like the six-foot-six Finn. That’s got to be worth something, doesn’t it?
“He's a unique defender. Almost a throwback, in that he's got that that element of physicality about him,” said head coach Jay Woodcroft. “He sneaks up on people. People aren't expecting it. But he's long, he closes fast, and he’s an excellent skater. He's put himself in the conversation to compete for ice time on the Edmonton Oilers' blue line.”
Niemeläinen, 24, played with Demers on Sunday.
“When I started my career (in San Jose), I was playing with Doug Murray. He gives me shades of that,” Demers said post-game. “There’s a big emphasis this year, just from being around the room with Jay, that they really want us getting up, pressing and being more aggressive on the pinch. I think that's his game in a nutshell.
“When you’re a forward and you look up and you see that body coming at you, guys will hesitate.”
Niemelainen only has 55 AHL games and 20 NHL games under his belt, but he’s a sleeper. Keep your eye on him this camp.
Just as he was at the Rookie Tournament in Penticton, B.C., Dylan Holloway was as noticeable a player as there was wearing those classic blue and orange darks that Edmonton sported once again Sunday.
He jumped past Logan Stanley and drove to the net for a nice chance, drawing a penalty, played both special teams and broke up a Jets three-on-two with a nice backtrack.
The level of competition will rise, we know that. But so far, Holloway looks very much like an NHL left winger.
"I got a little taste of it in playoffs, I was able to be with the team, and I stayed hungry over the summer," he said. "My first camp, I think it's been it's been pretty good."
He drives the net with authority and has the speed to take on an NHL defenceman. He might just barge into the Oilers' Top 9 this season — you never know.
“It’s definitely part of my game,” he said of taking the puck to the net. “I try to use my speed and physicality as best as I can. I played with a little adrenaline tonight but that’s definitely how I like to play.”
He has a fan in Woodcroft.
“I thought he was really good. The powerful stride in his ability to separate from his check and I thought he was physical. He showed up in offensive chances for us, a big reason the penalty kill had the success it did tonight,” the coach said. “Dylan certainly had a good first pre-season game.”
Some loose thoughts:
• Skinner was very tidy, stopping all 19 shots he faced. His glove hand was particularly tidy, leaving no pucks hanging around the crease. Calvin Pickard stopped 10 shots in the combined shutout.
• In a game where he should stand out, Jesse Puljujarvi did not. His linemates, Foegele and McLeod were very good, but Puljujarvi had zero shots and a second assist. More please.
• We liked what we saw of Dmitri Samorukov. I cannot see a scenario where he makes this team, but this could be one of those times where we don’t find out if a kid can play until he gets to the next NHL organization.
• Pickard was good. He will likely share the duties in Bakersfield with Olivier Rodrigue, and has a leg-up in the race to be the guy who gets a call up if either Jack Campbell or Skinner gets hurt. Ryan Fanti will likely begin his pro career in the ECHL.
• Another player it’s hard not to like is industrious centre James Hamblin. He’s small at five-foot-nine, but he does everything well. He’ll get NHL games sometime, somewhere, we’ll predict.